The myth of multitasking…

For me, multitasking is a myth. My brother can do it. Back in the day, the TV blaring, Doctor John on the turntable, clouds of smoke and waves of conversation filling the room, he could tell you what had just happened on the tube even as he continued the phone call with Chet, cracked on the Taconic Parkway and trying to make a bail set too high due to the embarrassing load he was hauling.

I can get behind Linda Stone’s concept of continuous partial attention (CPA) as long as it’s not mistaken for multitasking. Multitasking is getting it all done in the time it would take to get some of it done. Multitasking would be being able to talk on the phone and work on the computer with neither of the activities suffering due to filtered attention. The highest level of multitasking the average human can reach, is munching snack foods while watching TV.

CPA is time slicing, and expertly performed it might get you through the day at a higher level of productivity than a single minded devotion to the two tasks of slouching on the couch while watching Donny and Marie, pondering what awful incestuous secrets they may be concealing, and slamming the chips and dip located at arms reach. Finishing the snacks and the TV show at the same time is more a matter of logistics than productivity improvement, but it is certainly multitasking. Taking it up a notch, adding a few chores, homework, monitoring twitter, blog posting, reading the latest Robert Parker novel, and walking the dog — each of these may require its own time slice and be impossible of simultaneous accomplishment with any other.

And so, during a busy day we learn to divide our attention, refocus quickly, and work for brief periods on what is in front of us while coming back to tasks we have set aside in favor of others.

Posted in Miscellaneous
4 comments on “The myth of multitasking…
  1. jr says:

    I always held a suspicion that multi-tasking comes from doing things below your interest level.

  2. Winston says:

    Sexy buzz-words, but in its purest sense, for most (your bro excepted) folks it is neither an achievable nor desirable goal. Back in college days I constantly studied with a small group of 3 or 4 close classmates and we always had music playing. Mostly jazz or light classics. No interference. I can still do that. But don’t introduce visual stimuli like TV or face-2-face conversation on a totally different subject. For me, it’s primarily the visual thing that doesn’t play well with other activities.

    Been thinking along this line with twitter, weighing what I am or am not getting from it against the distraction it creates in doing a proper job of coming here to read your stuff and offer my meager comments.

  3. Kathy Sierra has a good post on this today.
    http://headrush.typepad.com

  4. James says:

    Actually in IT (where both of ‘Multitasking’ and ‘Timeslicing’ come from) they mean more or less the same thing. The same amount of work gets done – that’s constant – but the delivery schedule is different.

    Multitasking: many tasks at once, so it *seems* like things are getting done faster.

    Timeslicing: a way of implementing multistasking by working on many tasks at once by chopping and changing between them.

    Basically, the CPU (or you for that matter) can’t do any more work than you already do, you just allocate your time in a more prioritized manner.

    However, there is a downside (called “context switching” if you want to look it up on wikipedia or something). Each time you switch tasks costs you some “switching time” which _is_ _not_ _productive_. So if you’re multitasking 5 tasks you’ll lose time whenever you switch.

    At the end – when all tasks are done – you’ll actually have taken longer to complete all 5 than if you’d just done them one after the other due to the lost context switching.

    The more context switches the more time lost.

    If you’re not careful you end up spending more time swapping from one task to another than any real work (This is usually what your PC is doing when it hangs BTW – if you have 5 programs up and running for each of your tasks, it wastes a lot of time just swapping from one to the other. The same thing can happen to humans)

    The management crowd might think that ‘multitasking’ means ‘you get more done’, but what it really means is ‘high priority work gets done first, at the cost of low priority work which gets delayed’ and _overall_ productivity is lower.

    Funny really, I always thought it was management’s task to efficiently allocate resources and tasks – not the workers.

    Multitasking == abdication of responsiblity

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